Learning About Back Pain Helps Reduce It

By Steve Weakley

A new study published in JAMA Neurology shows that learning about the neuroscience of pain may help relieve some of it. 

Researchers have long understood that pain sensitivity varies from patient to patient, and there is a complex relationship between the mind and the body that influences how we experience pain. To explore that connection, researchers in Belgium divided 120 patients with chronic back and neck pain into two groups. A control group was treated with commonly recommended physical therapy and exercises.

The second group went through a program of “neuroscience education therapy,” in which they were given a very detailed explanation of what happens to the nervous system during chronic pain. Patients learned how neurons and synapses work, and how pain signals travel through nerve fibers, to the spinal cord and then the brain.

They were also taught the importance of self-care, ergonomics, stretching and fitness.

The patients were then given a series of challenging movements and exercises that gradually became more difficult and painful. They were encouraged to push through their pain, continue exercising and concentrate on functionality, not pain relief.

Treatment in both groups lasted three months, and the patients were re-evaluated after six months and a year. 

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Researchers say patients in the neuroscience therapy group showed markedly more progress than the control group.  They had significant improvement in their disability, a higher pain threshold, improved physical and mental functioning, and 50 percent less self-reported pain than the control group. That improvement continued even after one year.

“These positive effects can be attributed to the content of the experimental treatment as participants learn to put pain into the right perspective, to move regularly, and to be physically active. Consequently, participants probably feel empowered, whereas, previously, they viewed pain as a life-controlling factor,” researchers found.  

“The main message is: Don’t be afraid of the pain,” lead author Anneleen Malfliet told The New York Times. “We know that worrying and giving attention to pain ultimately increases it. Staying active and moving is better than rest when it comes to chronic back and neck pain.”

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide and it is the most often cited reason for missed work in the United States.  More than half of all working Americans experience back pain each year.